DIGITAL DISTRACTION:  HOW WE USE OUR DEVICES TO AVOID DIFFICULT EMOTIONS

Digital distraction is everywhere these days.  I have started paying attention to how I also use my devices to avoid difficult emotions. Checking my emails and surfing the internet consume more hours in my day than I’d like to admit. So, I have started looking more mindfully at my digital device habits.

How We Use Our Devices to Avoid Difficult Emotions

I have noticed that when watching the horrific news of the day, I often pick up my tablet to play a game of Solitaire.   With this mindful view, I now understand that I often play Solitaire to avoid feeling anxious and worried.

Similarly, when I’m taking public transportation, I tend to fritter away my time on my cellphone. As a result, I miss human interactions and the beautiful scenery around me.  I see how digital distraction distances us from others, and from our environment.

I have been weighing whether my digital device use truly connects me to others. Many close friends and family members prefer to “talk” via text, rather than by phone or in person. I have picked up this habit as well. I believe that much of the divisiveness, violence, confusion and lack of empathy in today’s world can be attributed to an over-reliance on social media for connection.

Digital Distraction As a Defense Against Being Hurt

Many of the clients in my therapy practice admit that they surf the internet to avoid difficult emotions, such as anger, fear or anxiety.  For example, “Donna” has a history of complex trauma, primarily due to her mother’s emotional abuse.  As a result,  Donna has used distraction as a coping mechanism throughout her life to avoid painful emotions.

Donna told me that she has long been “disconnected from life” to avoid anxiety and fear. She worries that if she connects with those in her life, they will disappoint and hurt her, like her mother did. Likewise, Donna avoids connecting with herself because when she does she is filled with negative self-judgments.

Due to her anxiety and fears, Donna often stays up until 2am or later, surfing the internet and playing computer games.  She understands that this habit allows her to avoid her fears and other difficult emotions.

How The Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan Can Help Create Healthy Relationships with Our Devices…And With Others

Donna and I have been working with the book Emotional Rescue:  How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers Youby Dzogchen Ponlop[i]We recently applied Ponlop Rinpoche’s Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan to Donna’s digital distraction as a way to avoid feeling her emotions at bedtime.  As a result, Donna is beginning to let go of her digital device urge, and instead, has begun reading or knitting to help her relax into sleep.

I offer the Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan here to help you create a mindful and healthy relationship with your devices and understand the triggers that make you turn to them to avoid difficult emotions.

The first step of the Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan is Mindful Gap.   When you feel the urge to distract yourself with your devices, simply stop, take a breath and notice the urge without taking action. Breathe and feel what’s going on in your body without judgment.

From this internal focus, expand your awareness to your environment.  This is Clear Seeing,  the second step of the Emotional Rescue Plan.  Take a look and see what your body is telling you when you have the urge to digitally distract yourself.  For example, do you feel a fluttering in your chest or tightening in your stomach when you feel anxious? Do you start fidgeting when you’re bored? Is there a pattern to mindlessly picking up a device when you feel certain emotions?

The third step of the Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan is Letting Go.  Allow your body to relax. Breathe in compassion for yourself, and breathe out compassion for all others who feel the need to digitally distract themselves to avoid difficult emotions.

Letting go gives you the chance to choose whether or not to pick up a device at that moment.  My aspiration is to choose connection and aliveness over distraction and numbness.

 

________________________

[i]Dzogchen Ponlop (2016). Emotional Rescue:  How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers You.  New York: Tarchin/Perigree.

(c) 2019 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

 

PRACTICING COMPASSION AND EQUANIMITY IN THE AGE OF TRUMP

Practicing compassion and equanimity with difficult people in our lives can be challenging.  However doing so greatly increases our capacity to care for all beings, including ourselves.  It also helps release us from getting caught up in negative emotions.

The Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen, which translates as  “sending and receiving,” is a powerful compassion practice. In practicing tonglen, we take in others’ suffering, and send them healing and compassion.  Each time you breathe in, you take in others’ pain and suffering. You take it into your heart, where it is transmuted, transformed into compassion. Then you breathe out, and send them healing and love.

Tonglenis practiced in stages:  first for ourselves, then for a loved one, then for a neutral person, then for someone we dislike, and finally for all sentient beings everywhere.  Tonglen can be done as a formal sitting practice or “on the spot”.[b]  For example, I practice tonglen on the spot when I pass a homeless person, instead of looking away.  I breathe in the suffering of that person, and send him or her healing with my out-breath.

Tonglen became a mainstay of my healing from the trauma of witnessing firsthand the horrors of 9/11. It was fairly easy for me to practice compassion for myself, those who died and their loved ones, and all others who witnessed the planes crash, whether in person or on the news. What truly healed me was practicing tonglen and developing compassion for the young hijackers who flew the planes into the World Trade Center.  I saw them as confused young men who abandoned their lovingkindness and basic goodness in the name of religious zealotry.

The transformative power of tonglen lies in directly experiencing that we are all born with basic goodness, and that our suffering, borne of clinging to a solid sense of self, obscures our basic goodness and lovingkindness as we move through life’s challenges.

Practicing equanimity is another transformative practice. It is a powerful way to let go of negativity and an “us versus them” mentality.  Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Han says that equanimity involves seeing everyone as equal:  “We shed all discrimination and prejudice, and remove all boundaries between ourselves and others.  In a conflict, even though we are deeply concerned, we remain impartial, able to love and to understand both sides.”[c]

I have recently been practicing compassion and equanimity for Donald Trump. Bear in mind that compassion does not mean approval. Without getting into a political discussion and simply based on my observations, I do not condone Trump’s lies, inflammatory language and divisiveness.

When I find myself getting caught in negativity listening to the news, I take a breath and step back.  I’ve made it a practice to look at Trump’s eyes and practice compassion and equanimity on the spot.  I am then able to see the fear and suffering in his eyes.  Behind his tough guy façade, I see a scared little boy.  Sometimes Trump’s eyes seem eerily empty, a reflection of a person who has been called “an existence without a soul.”[d]

Observing Trump’s pained eyes, I wonder how his soul became so damaged.  As a psychotherapist, it is tempting to diagnose him.  I prefer to try to understand, based on my understanding of trauma and attachment theory, how Trump has become the person he is today.  His mother has been described as emotionally distant and frequently absent.  His father has been described as a “tyrant.”

It is thus no surprise then that Trump is so sensitive to criticism.  His bluster and boastful arrogance are likely a mask to hide his deep insecurity and fear of being seen as weak or unworthy.  As Dr. Justin Frank notes:

One of the things that you do when you’re feeling ignored and abandoned in some way is develop contempt for that part of yourself. You have the hatred of your own weakness and you then become a bully and make other people feel weak, or mock other people to make it clear that you’re the strong one and that you don’t have any needs.[e]

Fear seems to be a driving force in Trump’s life. As Zen teacher Ezra Bayda says:

 “[F]ear makes our life narrow and dark.  It is at the root of all conflict, underlying much of our sorrow.  Fear also…disconnects us from the lovingkindness that is our true nature.”[f]

Understanding Donald Trump in this way helps me practice compassion and equanimity, not only for him, but for all others who have suffered because of difficult upbringings.  May they all discover the “lovingkindness that is [their] true nature.”

 ________________________________________

[a]Please note that this article is not intended as a political statement, but rather, an essay about how to work with compassion and equanimity for all beings, including those who challenge our ability to be compassionate.  Also see my blog article “How To Be a Mindful Activist…And not lose your mind: http://bethspatterson.com/mindful-activism/

[b]Pema Chodron, (Summer 2002). “Tonglen on the Spot.” Tricycle.

[c]Thich Nhat Han (1997).  The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching.  New York: Broadway Books, p. 162.

[d]Dan McAdams (June 2016).  “The Mind of Donald Trump.” The Atlantic, quoting Mark Singer, who interviewed Trump for a profile published as “Trump Solo” in The New Yorker (May 19, 1997).

[e]David Smith.  “Mommy Dearest:  A Psychiatrist Puts Trump on the Couch.” The Guardian. (September 29, 2018).

[f]Ezra Bayda (Spring 2009). “The Three Things We Fear Most.”  Tricycle.

HOW TO BE A MINDFUL ACTIVIST…AND NOT LOSE YOUR MIND

There has been an enormous rise in social activism in the last few years.  However, if we are not mindful activists, we may harden our hearts, isolate ourselves, and get swept away in the contagion of negativity, hatred and aggression all around us.  We may experience depression, anxiety or trauma observing the divisiveness, misfortunes and confusion in the world.  We may wonder if we can make a difference, and may experience hopelessness, helplessness or profound fear.

Current events can reawaken our feelings about prior struggles we have endured. Public allegations of sexual misconduct can trigger memories of abuse or harassment.  Racism or gender inequality can trigger memories of discrimination. These memories can become so intrusive that they interfere with our lives and relationships.

These turbulent times also provide an opportunity to open our hearts and develop compassion for ourselves and all other beings.  As the Dalai Lama has said:

“When people say that I have worked a lot for peace, I feel embarrassed. I feel like laughing. I don’t think I have done very much for world peace. It’s just that my practice is the peaceful path of kindness, love, compassion, and not harming others…. I am simply a follower of the Buddha, and the Buddha taught that patience is the supreme means for transcending suffering.”[i]

 According to the Buddhist teachings, patience is the antidote for anger and aggression, and as the Dalai Lama notes, it can help us overcome suffering.  One way to practice patience is what Dzogchen Ponlop, in his book Emotional Rescue,[ii]calls “Mindful Gap.” Taking a Mindful Gap allows us to slow down and pause Instead of reflexively acting angrily. When the first burst of anger’s energy arises, take a moment to breathe and feel the experience of anger in the body. Then, hold the experience, staying in the present moment. This allows us to look and see what the feelings are telling us.  By taking a Mindful Gap, we can choose the most beneficial course of action, whether it be speaking or acting compassionately, or refraining from doing anything at all.

Seeing the world in terms of “us versus them” increases suffering.  If we realize that we are all together in this boat called life, we can cultivate compassion for everyone – even those with whom we profoundly disagree.  In the words of Zen master and social activist Rev. angel Kyodo Williams:

When I sit with a sense of the human being there, I don’t actually feel hatred at all. I feel a kind of grief for their circumstance and for the society that allows injustice to happen. They’re just as caught up in it as every other person who allows this to be the social order. It’s hard to accept, and it’s a really, really deep practice, but I haven’t discovered anything else to be true and actually workable.[iii]

 Finding compassion for all being helps us realize that we all suffer. With this realization, we can approach others with a sense of curiosity and concern, rather than prejudice or aggression. Knowing we all suffer helps us feel less alone, and can alleviate anxiety, depression, anger or fear.

Balance and self-care are also keys for mindful activism. Activists may experience overwhelm, stress or burnout.  If we are not mindful, the stress of activism can cause changes in the brain, increasing cortisol and adrenaline and the fight or flight response.  This in turn can result in anxiety or trauma.  Becoming familiar with our early warning signs of undue stress is important to prevent it from escalating.  For example, when I become really forgetful, irritable and/or clumsy, I know it’s time to take a break and relax.

Here are some tips for being a mindful activist and not “lose your mind”:

  • Take care of your physical well-being, including healthy eating, getting enough sleep and exercise.
  • Reach out to fellow activists and friends to talk about your feelings.
  • Maintain a sense of humor.
  • Do something you enjoy every day, such as walking, listening to music, getting together with friends, reading a good book
  • Be mindful of your thoughts.Let go of negative thoughts and negative self-talk, like leaves floating down a stream.
  • Practice being in the present moment, moment by moment. For example, when you are washing the dishes, experience how your hands feel in the warm water, the sound of the water, the smell of the soap. When thoughts arise that take you away from the experience, simply come back to washing the dishes.
  • Take breaks from the news, social media and your devices. Turn off all devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime, and take that time for quiet reading, journaling or meditation.
  • Practice gratitude. Take time to appreciate the beauty of nature, others’ generosity and compassion, the song of a bird, the purr of a cat.
  • Maintain a healthy balance between alone time and time with others.
  • If you are experiencing compassion fatigue, burnout, or increased anxiety or depression that are interfering with your daily life, seek guidance from a spiritual advisor or psychotherapist. Professional support can be helpful in alleviating your personal suffering, so you can go on being of benefit to yourselves and your world.

_____________________

References:

[i]HH The Dalai, Lama (2018).  The Bodhisattva Guide:  A Commentary on the Way of the Bodhisattva (p. 140). Boston: Shambhala Publications.

[ii]Dzogchen Ponlop (2016).  Emotional Rescue:  How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers You.New York: Tarchin/Perigree.

[iii]Sharon Salzberg & Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams, Love Everyone:  A Guide for Spiritual Activists.  Lion’s Roar, August 18, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2018 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

 

 

THE ART OF MINDFUL LISTENING

“Do your best to practice compassionate listening. Do not listen for the sole purpose of judging, criticizing or analyzing. Listen only to help the other person express himself and find some relief from suffering.”  Thich Nhat Hanh

Mindful listening is so important in times of trauma and grief, so prevalent in our world today.  Mindful listening, also called active or compassionate listening, is about connection and validation. When we feel heard, we feel loved, cared for and understood, just as we are.

We may think that it is easy to listen, but true listening from the heart requires openness, courage and vulnerability.  Mindful listening helps us stay open with another and be able to sit with the expression of intense emotions.  Mindful listening is active listening.  We do not passively sit there, but convey to the speaker that he or she is heard and understood, whether by paraphrasing, reflection or nonverbal acts, like sitting forward in your chair, maintaining eye contact, and nodding our head.  Roshi Joan Halifax beautifully expresses this as follows:

Listening means that we have stabilized our minds so completely that the person who is speaking can actually hear themselves through our stillness.It is a quality of radiant listening, of luminous listening, of vibrant listening, but it is also very still.  It is listening with attention, with openheartedness, without prejudice….We listen with our being.  We offer our whole listening body.[i]

Listening is not about giving advice, trying to fix the situation or agreeing with the speaker.  What the person who is suffering needs most is someone to compassionately bear witness to what he or she is feeling.    Mindful listening requires empathy, not sympathy.  As shame and trauma researcher and writer Brené Brown has said,

“Empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection….  Empathy entails the “ability to take the perspective of another person or recognize their perspective as their truth…. Empathy is I’m feeling with you. Sympathy [is] I’m feeling for you.[ii]

Suffering is a universal part of the human condition. However, despite the universality of suffering, we are unique individuals, and our suffering has unique qualities.  Therefore, responding “I know just how you feel” (i.e., “feeling foryou”) is unhelpful and even hurtful. If you identify so completely with another’s suffering, you no longer hear him or her as an individual.  Instead of saying “I know just how you feel,” you might instead say something like “That sounds so difficult.  Tell me more.”  Notice how different the two responses feel.

It is easy to be triggered when someone is describing an experience of abuse or loss.  Out of our own anxiety, we may say something unhelpful or damaging.  For example, I remember listening to a client tell me about her multiple miscarriages at a time in her life she was experiencing substance abuse and homelessness.  I felt my anxiety rising.  Instead of responding right away, I allowed myself to breathe and stay present with my client.  Pausing and breathing allowed me to resist the urge to say “maybe it’s a blessing” or another cliché.  At one point, my client actually said to me “…and if one more person says ‘maybe it’s a blessing” I’m going to strangle them!”  Phew – Mindful listening saved the day!

Mindful listening includes becoming aware of our habitual patterns. Noticing our habits as they arise is the key to changing them.  We all have listening habits, or “listening traps” that create barriers to compassionate listening. It is worthwhile to contemplate the listening trap questions on this linked list, and identify which ones you tend to engage in when you are not being mindful: https://www.smp.org/dynamicmedia/files/f61aa314d326aefcc87af335025a930f/TX004482_2_handout_9A_Listening_Traps.pdf[iii].

For example, when I was interning as a hospice bereavement counselor, I realized that one of my listening traps is #7 on this list:  “Do you get caught up with insignificant facts and details and miss the emotional tone of the conversation?” I became painfully aware of this when I was working with a woman whose son had recently died in a car accident.  As she was describing what had happened and the pain of her loss, I interrupted with the question “How old was your son?”  This mindless question broke our emotional connection in that moment.

We have all experienced the hurt of not being heard, and being responded to with unwanted advice, a cliché or pat response. Some examples:

  • “I know just how you feel.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “The same thing happened to me.”
  • “Well, you can always have another [child, pet, relationship – fill in the blank]
  • “At least he’s in a better place.”
  • “Maybe you should….”
  • “It could be worse.”
  • “Let me tell you about the time when….”

Responding with a cliché does not mean that the listener does not care; it simply means that the listener was not mindful in responding.  Mindful listening is like a dance, where most of your attention is focused on the speaker and moments of attention are focused on yourself to make sure you are actually listening. The following are some tips for mindful listening:

  • Notice your physical and emotional responses as you listen to another’s suffering.
  • Notice where you feel your tension or anxiety in your body:Is your heart beating faster?  Are you feeling tightness in your chest? Fluttering in your stomach?
  • Take a breath before responding.
  • Be curious.
  • Listen not only to the speaker’s words, but also his or her body language and emotional tone.
  • Remove distractions such as cellphones or paperwork that may prevent you from fully being with the other person.
  • Pay attention to any judgments that arise and set them aside.
  • Check in with yourself during the conversation and make sure you are still present and listening.

Sometimes the best response is sacred silence, meeting the other with love and understanding. The key is to be present, breathe, and through your verbal and nonverbal responses, let the speaker know her or she is heard.

 

_______________________________

[i]Joan Halifax, in P. Zaleski & P. Kaufman (1997). Gifts of the Spirit

[ii]Brené Brown (2013).  RSA Talk, The Power of Vulnerability. YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=sXSjc-pbXk4

[iii]© St. Mary’s Press.

UNCOVERING THE POWER OF VULNERABILITY: A MINDFULNESS APPROACH

Most of us think of vulnerability as weakness. However, the word vulnerability simply means able to be open. By being open, we can clearly see ourselves and that world around us.  This panoramic view gives us the ability and power to grow, heal and be fully engaged in our lives.

We often think that if we are open and vulnerable, we will be attacked.  This is something most of us learn early on in life.  We come into the world as open and vulnerable babies, unconditionally loving ourselves and the world around us.  Then life gets in the way. We feel judged, misunderstood, rejected or abandoned, and little by little that open innocence begins to close. We close a portion of our hearts. We lose our spontaneity, basic aliveness and self-expression out of fear.

The first step of opening to our basic aliveness is becoming aware of the fears and self-beliefs that close our hearts. For me, mindfulness meditation was the key for unlocking my heart.

Through slowing down in meditation, and taking the time to get to know myself, I discovered my fear of being judged as unlovable. I became acutely aware that I had closed myself from my basic aliveness out of fear.  Slowing down and breathing into my heart in meditation, I had a direct experience of what felt like ice melting around my heart.  I experienced profound sadness and grief for the loss of the open heart and vulnerability I had as a baby and young child.  Over time, I was able to let go of the fears that held me back, experience compassion for myself and allow myself to be and be loved, just as I am.

So, I offer this guided meditation to you:

  • Sit in a comfortable position, either on a meditation cushion or in a chair with your feet on the floor. Make sure you are sitting upright in a relaxed fashion so your breath can freely move.
  • Bring attention to your breath – cool nourishing breaths in, and long slow breaths out, letting go of stress and tension with each outbreath.Allow yourself to slow down.  When thoughts come up, simply notice them and return your attention to your breath.
  • As you begin to slow down and relax, bring your attention to your heart center. Bring one hand to your heart. Breathe into your heart, noticing the hand touching your heart to rise with each inhale and relax with each exhale.
  • Continuing to breathe in this way, experience the sensations around your heart. In order to become familiar with and connect with your heart, ask:  If it had a color, what color would it be?  Similarly, if it had a size, shape, texture or temperature, what would that be.
  • Now, continuing to focus your attention on your heart, notice your emotions. Fear or sadness may arise.  Breathe into the emotional experience and allow your emotions to be just as they are, without getting lost in thoughts, judgments or stories.
  • End your meditation practice with the aspiration that you grow and heal, and in your growth and healing, may you be of benefit to yourself and all others.

It is my aspiration that this practice will help you understand with compassion the fears that have closed your heart, so that you can grow, heal and open with the power of vulnerability to yourself and your life.

 

 

© 2018.  Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE SACRED EXPERIENCE OF LISTENING AND BEING HEARD

Many of my clients come to therapy because they have not been truly heard throughout their lives. Healing begins when the client feels heard by the therapist. When clients have an experience of being heard fully and without judgment by the therapist, they can take the experience of listening and being heard into their lives and experience the sacred space between themselves and others.

Being heard goes hand-in-hand with “active listening.”   Wikipedia describes  active listening as “a special way of reflecting back what the other person has expressed to let him/her know you are listening…. Active Listening is a restatement of the other person’s communication, both the words and the accompanying feelings, i.e., nonverbal cues—tone of voice, facial expression, body posture.”

Instead of active listening, we often interrupt the speaker with our own ideas or agenda, assume we know what the speaker is going to say and tune them out, get triggered by the depth of what is being said and shut down, or get distracted by our own thoughts.

Active listening involves one’s whole being. It is not just passive silence, but a way of using body, heart and mind to truly hear what the other person is saying and to convey that he or she is being heard. This is done through means such as paraphrasing, reflecting back what you heard, asking questions, maintaining eye contact or nodding your head.

Active listening is a mutual act between the listener and speaker. We listen not only to the words, but also to body language, inflection, tone and other modes of expression. For example, if a friend is telling a story about a great experience visiting family, but her facial expression seems sad, there may be something that is not being expressed in words.

The best instruction I have received for active listening is two words: “Be curious.” Using the example above, the listener might ask “your face looks sad to me when you just told me about your family visit. Is there anything you are sad about?” It takes practice to not assume that you know what is going on and to not judge what you have heard. Asking questions in this way allows both speaker and listener to go deeper and develop closeness and intimacy.

Something sacred happens through active listening and being heard. The Jewish theologian Martin Buber called this the “I and Thou” experience. A sacred space is created between two people when they truly listen and are heard. According to Buber, the ultimate sacred space is that between a person and God. In Buddhism, this can be the experience of our inherent Buddha Nature – the primordial wisdom and purity that exists in all of us at all times, but which we forget as we go through life and start to build defenses against being spontaneously present with ourselves and others.

Only by understanding that we are all in the same boat we call human life can we listen and be heard, with empathy and openness. Instead, we often view those with whom we relate as totally separate from us. We do so to protect ourselves from being seen, or to satisfy some agenda. Buber calls such an interaction “I and It” rather than I and Thou.

The experience of I and Thou can only be sustained when we are fully open and mindful, noticing when we shut down and protect ourselves or when we stop listening to another. Seeing when we shut down can be instructive. It can show us where we are stuck in not wanting to be close and intimate with others. By understanding the triggers that cause us to shut down and protect ourselves, we can develop compassion for ourselves and others and be fully being present with others, without an agenda or guardedness.

I have always found it interesting that the words “heard” and “heart” are so similar. Our wounded hearts can be healed by the mutual experience of listening with our whole body, heart and mind and being heard. We can then experience the sacred space of I and Thou between us.  As Zen Buddhist teacher Joan Halifax has said:

Listening means that we have stabilized our minds so completely thatthe person who is speaking can actually hear themselves through our stillness. It is a quality of radiant listening, of luminous listening, of vibrant listening, but it is also very still. It is listening with attention, with openheartedness, without prejudice. We listen with our being. We offer our whole listening body.[1]

 

______________________

[1] Joan Halifax, in Gifts of the Spirit, by Philip Zaleski & Paul Kaufman (1997).

 

© 2017 Beth S. Patterson, MA, LPC. All rights reserved.

OVERCOMING THE NEGATIVITY BIAS: A MINDFULNESS APPROACH

As neuropsychologist and mindfulness teacher Rick Hanson says “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but like Teflon for positive ones.”[1] What Dr. Hanson describes is known as the “negativity bias.” The negativity bias is hardwired in the human brain. Early humans needed this brain bias for survival purposes. The negativity bias allowed our ancestors to learn behaviors that became hardwired in the brains of their descendants in order to avoid danger and stay alive. The negativity bias remains part of the human brain today, and impacts our wellbeing in many ways.

The Impact of the Negativity Bias in Daily Life

Research in neuroscience shows that the brain reacts more strongly to negative stimuli than positive ones. We hold on to negative memories much longer and more strongly than positive ones, like what Dr. Hanson describes as Velcro.  This hardwiring stimulates the brain’s fight, flight or freeze hyper-vigilant responses to perceived threats, and affects us physically, cognitively and emotionally.

On a physical level, hyper-vigilance affects our adrenal and cortisol systems, resulting in sleep disturbances, fatigue, shortness of breath and numerous other physical issues. Emotionally, we may experience anxiety, fear, confusion or anger. Cognitively, we may develop strong negative beliefs, such as “I don’t deserve love”, “I cannot trust others”, or “I am not safe.”

For example, if someone has experienced the sudden death of a loved one, she may react with great fear and anxiety each time she is unable to reach another loved one. If someone is judged or ridiculed at work for suggesting a novel approach to working with a challenge, he may be less inclined to offer suggestions again. And, if one grows up with an abusive parent, she may come to believe that she is unlovable and that no one can be trusted. These associations the brain makes are like tangled knots in a ball of thread that link new experiences with old negative experiences.

Overcoming the Negativity Bias through Mindfulness

The good news is that the negativity bias can be overcome through mindfulness, and the tangled knots of association can be loosened and untied. The first step is to become aware of the brain’s negativity bias and that the brain links different events and experiences together, like the 0’s and 1’s of a binary computer. This awareness helps us then determine if something we are experiencing is truly a threat to our safety or wellbeing. If it is a threat, we can take appropriate action. If it is not a threat, we can learn to let go of the impact of a perceived negative experience, seeing it for what it is.

Mindfulness can actually rewire the brain to hold on to positive experiences in a productive and healthy way – more like Velcro than Teflon. The practice of mindfulness meditation teaches us to be present, moment-to-moment, and not just live in our thoughts. The irony is that through mindfulness meditation, we become more aware of our thoughts. The difference is that we no longer need to get carried away by our thoughts, and expand a single thought into an epic novel. We learn to let thoughts go and return to the experience of the present moment.

Being mindful also makes us more aware of the negative and self-limiting thoughts that have kept us from being fully and joyfully alive. Mindfulness is not limited to sitting on a cushion and watching our breath. In fact, in addition to sitting meditation, I often “prescribe” mindful walking, mindful dish washing and mindful driving to my clients as ways to learn to be present with whatever it is they are experiencing. The key is to notice the thoughts and come back fully to whatever it is you are experiencing.

Without mindful awareness, our negative thoughts are the omnipresent background noise of our lives. Becoming aware of our negative self-talk and thoughts allows us to separate ourselves from them, to challenge and even eliminate them. Cognitive therapy, including mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, offers another way to do that, and works well with mindfulness practices.

The more present we are, moment-to-moment, the more we can experience the small joys of being alive.   We are more able to fully savor positive experiences and make them a part of who we are, without judgment. We come to realize that joy and presence is our birthright.

A highly effective way to rewire the brain to respond more to positive experiences is the “gratitude exercise”: Every night before you go to bed, write down five things you are grateful for that happened that day. When I assign this exercise to depressed clients, I may hear the complaint “but I have nothing to be grateful for.” I respond to this by pointing out positive things in the environment they can experience directly, such as a sunny day or a bird singing outside my office window.

The gratitude exercise and learning to be mindful in the present moment allow us to short circuit and rewire the brain’s negativity bias. We can then open our eyes and hearts to life, with all of its joys and sorrows, and fully appreciate who we are.

 

[1] R. Hanson, “Take in the Good”, www.rickhanson.net, June 2015.

 

 

© 2016 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved.

 

STAYING SANE IN AN INSANE WORLD

The world around us may seem chaotic and downright insane these days. Here are some tips for remaining sane amidst the world’s seeming insanity:

Impose news and media “blackouts.” It is so easy to get caught up in the frenzy of the ever-changing news these days. Imposing limits on watching television and looking at and interacting with social media is of critical importance.

Limit news watching to one hour a day. The 24/7 news media like CNN work by sucking you in. Resist the temptation to be glued to your television or digital news media, and limit watching to one hour a day.

Be aware of triggers and trauma. The insanity of the world around us can make us feel unsafe and distrustful. In fact, many of my clients have been reporting an increase in anxiety and reactivation of old traumas, due to the pervasive news of sexual assaults, deceptive practices, gun violence, racism, war…and the list goes on. It is important to understand these triggers and develop self-compassion around them. Professional support can help us heal and develop a sense of safety and trust.

Spend time with friends and family. When we are feeling stressed out, anxious or depressed, it is so easy to isolate ourselves. Be sure to make time for the people in your life who nurture and support you.

Be mindful of negative thoughts. Negative thoughts of anger, fear, hopelessness and despair can proliferate automatically when the world around us seems chaotic. If we are not mindful about our thoughts, they can become epic novels! If you have a mindfulness meditation practice, make sure to practice and stay vigilant about discursive thoughts. If you do not have a mindfulness practice, there are many apps, such as HeadSpace that can be helpful.

Practice self-care. Stress is exhausting, both emotionally and physically. Get a massage, take a walk in nature, cuddle with your pets and loved ones. This is particularly important for those of us in the caring professions. Do all you can to not take on the traumas and stress of clients or patients. Maintain healthy boundaries. Be mindful not to take on others’ stress or trauma by maintaining healthy boundaries. Get support from others if you are experiencing secondary trauma or overwhelm.

Practice staying in the present moment, moment to moment. Being in the present moment is like an oasis in the desert. Mindfulness isn’t limited to sitting on a cushion. Our time “on the cushion”, so to speak, prepares us for out daily lives “off the cushion.” For example, if you are washing the dishes, be present with that: Notice how your hands feel in the soapy water. Feel the sensations of your sponge wiping the plates. When thoughts arise, simply return your attention to washing the dishes. This can be done with any daily activity, such as driving.

DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY

How many times has someone said to you “don’t take it personally”? You have probably heard it so many times that the phrase has lost all meaning. Yet, the truth is that almost nothing is truly personal. Further, not taking things personally allows us to experience self-compassion and compassion for others.

We suffer when we believe in a solid sense of “I.” This is the fundamental tenet of the first of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism. Developing an understanding of this First Noble Truth is the key to the experience of freedom and ease. Believing in the true existence of “I” is commonly referred to in Buddhism as ego-clinging. It can also be called self-importance.

Everything is a Projection

People do not see things in exactly the same way. Rather, what each of us perceives is a projection, based on numerous factors, such as habits, assumptions, culture, values and preferences. In fact, the only things the eye directly sees are colors and shapes.

I often help my clients develop their understanding of projections by looking at a plant in my office. I ask them what they see. They may say they see a pretty philodendron. When we analyze that, we realize that “pretty” is an evaluation and “philodendron” is a label. So, what is seen under the labels and evaluations? All that the eye truly registers on the optic nerve are colors and shapes.

Seeing mere colors and shapes does not satisfy our busy brains. We take the color and shape and add labels, evaluations, stories, and on and on until it becomes an epic novel. For example, from the color and shape, we label the plant and then evaluate it. Unless we are mindful about our proliferating thoughts, we may go on and think about the last time the plant was watered and if it needs pruning. We may even go further and judge ourselves for not having a green thumb.

It is the same when we see another person. We don’t stop with what we see directly. Rather, we go on to project all our own “stuff” on that person: good person, bad person, fat person, fit person, attractive person, unattractive person and on and on. Of course, human connection is far more nuanced than mere colors and shapes. However, an understanding that what another sees is his or her particular projection is helpful when we are feeling judged or criticized. This does not mean that constructive criticism is to be ignored. What we should remember, however, is that it is your behavior that is being critiqued, and not who you actually are.

Not taking things personally as the key to compassion and harmony

Not taking things personally is also a key to effective and responsible communication. When we put aside our ego-clinging and self-importance, we can better hear what another is actually saying. Behind every criticism or judgment is a need that is not being expressed in a compassionate manner. Instead of defending our position and taking what is being said personally, take a breath or two before automatically reacting defensively. Feel what your body is telling you. For example, does that clenching tightness in your gut feel like anger or hurt? When you understand what you are feeling, you can more ably discern how to respond, and even whether to respond at all.

For example, if a partner says, “you never wash the dishes,” what he or she is likely expressing is a request that you do the dishes. A typical kneejerk reaction would be to defend yourself, responding “that’s not true. I washed the dishes last Tuesday.” A defensive reaction such as this is likely to create more tension. Instead, we can respond with compassion, both for what we feel and for what our partner is asking.

If what is being said is intentionally mean or verbally abusive, it may be best to disengage in order to feel safe. Responding defensively may escalate an already difficult situation. By disengaging in those situations, you can best contemplate and choose the best choice of action for yourself under the circumstances.

Not taking things personally may take practice, patience and mindfulness in order to let go of our need to be right or defend our position. The result is a more kind and compassionate relationship, both with ourselves and with others.

© 2016 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved.

LETTING GO IS NOT GIVING UP


“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery.
None but ourselves can free our minds.”

–Bob Marley, Redemption Song

We resist the idea of letting go because we tend to equate it with giving up or surrendering to another’s will. When we let go and accept what we are actually feeling and listen to what another is saying, compassion and freedom can arise. In contrast, when we immediately guard or defend ourselves, we cannot hear what another is actually saying. In addition, when we reflexively defend our position, we are dissociating ourselves from our emotions and the truth.

How to Let Go

The first step in letting go is to experience our feelings in a direct, non-judgmental and honest way. The best way to do that is to take a breath and feel your bodily sensations. For example, if someone says something to me that seems judgmental or accusatory, my go-to reflexive response is to immediately defend myself and my position. When that happens, the tension between us escalates, and neither of us truly hears what the other person is saying.

When I am mindful and take a step back before automatically reacting, I can hear both what the other person is asking, and what I am feeling in response. In his book Emotional Rescue: How to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers You , Dzogchen Ponlop calls this taking a “mindful gap.” Taking a pause rather than immediately reacting allows me to hold the present moment, feel the energy in my body, and look directly at my experience, without creating extraneous thoughts or story lines.

Using the example of someone saying something to me that seems judgmental or accusatory, when I take a mindful step back and observe my bodily sensations, I may feel a tightness in my heart. I breathe into that tightness and find that what I am feeling is hurt and sadness. Then I can get perspective and can choose to respond in a responsible way, hearing the need the other person is expressing rather than my hurt feelings. This does not mean that I give up feeling hurt, but rather, take responsibility for it in a compassionate way. I can then let it go and respond in an empathic and responsible way.

From Emotional Slavery to Emotional Liberation

This process is described by Marshall Rosenberg in his seminal book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life : “We take responsibility for our feelings, rather than blame other people, by acknowledging our own needs, desires, expectations, values and thoughts.” This is the key to compassionate communication and healing our relationships, with ourselves and all others.

The result of taking responsibility in this way is what Rosenberg calls “emotional liberation.” Freedom occurs when we experience and take responsibility for our feelings, understand what another needs and what we need, and make requests that are in accord with our needs. As Bob Marley notes in Redemption Song, when we own our feelings, we can free ourselves from “mental slavery” and let go.

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References:

Bob Marley, Redemption Song. © 1980. Kobalt Music Pub. America o/b/o Fifty-Six Hope Road Music Pub. Ltd. and Blackwell Fuller Music Pub. Ltd.

Dzogchen Ponlop. (2016). Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion Into Energy That Empowers You. New York: Tarchen/Perigee. https://www.amazon.com/Emotional-Rescue-Emotions-Transform-Confusion/

M. Rosenberg. (2015). Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. 3rd edition. Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press.https://www.amazon.com/Nonviolent-Communication-Language-Life-Changing-Relationships/

(c) 2016 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved